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Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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Vol. I. Poetry for Scandinavian Rulers 1: From Mythological Times to c. 1035

8. Volume Introduction

1. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages — a new edition (MCR)
2. The poetry in this volume (DW)
3. Sources for skaldic poetry cited in the kings’ sagas: manuscripts, facsimiles and editions (KEG)
4. Biographies (KSH)
5. Metres and poetic diction (DW)
6. How to use this edition (MCR)

(Vol. I. Poetry for Scandinavian Rulers 1: From Mythological Times to c. 1035 > 8. Volume Introduction > 2. The poetry in this volume)

2. The poetry in this volume (DW)

The keynote of the poetry edited in SkP I is a note of war, and if there is a typical or classic poem it will be an extended encomium praising a Norwegian king or jarl (earl) for his battle-deeds, as he advances his standards into battle, reddens his sword, and either turns his enemies into food for the raven and wolf or puts them to flight. The poetry in the volume commemorates, or is associated with, the lives of Scandinavian kings and jarls from the legendary Yngling kings to 1035, the year that sees the death of Knútr inn ríki ‘the Mighty’ Sveinsson (Cnut the Great), ruler of England, Denmark and (through his son Sveinn Álfífuson/Knútsson) Norway, and the start of the rule of Magnús inn góði ‘the Good’ Óláfsson in Norway. Among the Norwegian kings, Óláfr Tryggvason (r. c. 995-c. 1000) and Óláfr inn helgi Haraldsson (S. Óláfr, r. c. 1015-1030) stand out as subjects of contemporary and retrospective poetry, and of later saga, though their historical importance is perhaps exaggerated in the traditions that developed around them. Other rulers from this period are also the subject of significant amounts of extant poetry, among them the Norwegian kings Haraldr hárfagri ‘Fair-hair’ Hálfdanarson, Eiríkr blóðøx ‘Blood-axe’ Haraldsson, Hákon góði ‘the Good’ Haraldsson, and Haraldr gráfeldr ‘Grey-cloak’ Eiríksson; the jarls of Hlaðir (Lade) Hákon jarl Sigurðarson (about whom an outstanding array of poetry survives) and Eiríkr jarl Hákonarson; the Danish kings Sveinn tjúguskegg ‘Fork-beard’ Haraldsson and Knútr inn ríki; and the Swedish king Óláfr Eiríksson. The Norwegian magnates Erlingr Skjálgsson and Kálfr Árnason are also the subjects of encomia, as is Queen Ástríðr, widow of Óláfr Haraldsson, the only female dedicatee. The lives of all the main subjects of the poetry, and the poetry concerning them, are summarised in Section 4 ‘Biographies’ below.

The historical value of this poetry is immense. Most of it is reliably credited to named skalds or poets, and it is a precious testimony to the actual words of Viking Age people, preserved largely thanks to the intricate verse-forms in which they are cast. Most of the poetry in the volume can be dated with some confidence and is contemporaneous with, or composed shortly after, the events described. For many events it is the only early source of evidence, albeit often a tantalising one. Its subject-matter centres on some of the most important events of the period: major Scandinavian battles on sea and on land, and campaigns and raids in the British Isles, France, Spain, North Africa, the Baltic and Russia, as well as on topics such as alliances, law-giving and taxation. Straddling the crucial period of the conversion of western Scandinavia in the decades around the year 1000, the poetry in SkP I also throws much light on the pagan religion of the North and on the early days of Christianity, this being just one of several areas in which the poetry can offer valuable evidence to historians of culture and religion, archaeologists and others. Lighter moments of leisure and jest also feature in the corpus.

In keeping with its historical importance, the poetry is ordered in this volume along broadly chronological lines. Where possible, dates are assigned and reference is made to other poetic coverage of the same events. A few items of doubtful authenticity are ordered according to their subject-matter and purported date, accepting the witness of the medieval sources; any doubts about dating are discussed in the Introductions. A new genre of historical (non-contemporary) poetry arose in the later twelfth century in which poets looked back at much earlier events such as the battle against the Jómsvíkingar c. 985 and the battle of Svǫlðr c. 1000. Such poetry is placed towards the end of the volume, after the contemporary poetry. The other principle of ordering is that poetry attributed to named skalds precedes the anonymous poetry. The fact that the complete oeuvre of each skald is presented together and in some cases spans a wide date-range slightly modifies the chronological arrangement of the volume.

To affirm the historical importance of early skaldic poetry is not, of course, to deny its selective nature or to ignore legion interpretative problems. The poetry is elitist, propagandist and partisan, promoting a warrior ideology in which valour is all. It springs from a society in which the proceeds of raiding sustain the loyalty of warriors and skalds (many skalds being fighters too), and in which the technology and splendid craftsmanship of ships and metalwork are valued especially for their military applications. We see little of the other Viking Age, of farmers, traders and town-builders, and if home comforts and even romance are mentioned it is normally in disdainful contrast with the rugged life of the seaborne warrior.

The poetry in SkP I spans the reigns of several Scandinavian and English rulers, who are listed below. Not all of those listed are directly represented in the extant poetry: for those who are see Section 4.1 ‘Ruler biographies’). Some of the battles that feature most prominently in the poetry are also listed. As emphasised in Section 4, many of the dates are uncertain.

To a large extent the order corresponds with that of Skj (and Skald).

An extreme example is Þórðr Særeksson (ÞSjár), whose poetry spans events as early as c. 961 and as late as c. 1026.

Some encomiastic poetry is preserved outside the mss of the kings’ sagas and is therefore edited elsewhere in the SkP series. Setting aside fragments of uncertain identity, the chief instances are the following, in approximate chronological order (superscript numerals designate SkP volumes and rulers are specified in parentheses): Egill AðdrV (Æthelstan, English king); Egill HflV (Eiríkr blóðøx, king in York); KormǪ SigdrIII (Sigurðr jarl Hákonarson); Eskál HardrIII (Haraldr blátǫnn, Danish king); Hfr HákdrIII (Hákon jarl Sigurðarson); Gunnl AðdrV (Æthelred, English king); Gunnl SigdrV (Sigtryggr, king in Dublin); Hfr EirdrV (Eiríkr jarl Hákonarson); Ótt ÓldrIII (Óláfr Eiríksson, Swedish king); Hallv KnútdrIII (Knútr inn ríki). Although not conventional encomia, poems such as Bragi RdrIII, Þjóð HaustlIII, Eil ÞórdrIII and Skúli SvǫlðrIII are associated with courtly contexts or the deeds of kings, while ESkúl GeislVII is a retrospective encomium for a saint-king.

The rulers named did not necessarily control the whole of the territories named, and the extent of the territories differed somewhat from their modern counterparts.

(expand subsections)

1. [Table of rulers]

2. [Continued...]

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